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Procrastination

Dr Henriette Smith August 2017

· Mind,Life Skills

Have you ever sat down to complete an important task — and then suddenly discovered you were up loading the dishwasher or engrossed in the Wikipedia entry about Chernobyl? Or perhaps you suddenly realize that the dog needs to be fed, emails need to be answered, your ceiling fan needs dusting — or maybe you should go ahead and have lunch, even though it’s only 11 a.m.?

Next thing you know, it’s the end of the day and your important task remains unfinished.

According to two of the world's leading experts on procrastination: Joseph Ferrari, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology at De Paul University in Chicago, and Timothy Pychyl, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, these are:

Ten things to know about procrastination:

  1. Twenty percent of people identify themselves as chronic procrastinators. For them procrastination is a lifestyle, albeit a maladaptive one. And it cuts across all domains of their life. They don't pay bills on time. They miss opportunities for buying tickets to concerts.
  2. It's not trivial, although as a culture we don't take it seriously as a problem. It represents a profound problem of self-regulation.
  3. Procrastination is not a problem of time management or of planning. Procrastinators are not different in their ability to estimate time, although they are more optimistic than others. "Telling someone who procrastinates to buy a weekly planner is like telling someone with chronic depression to just cheer up," insists Dr. Ferrari.
  4. Procrastinators are made not born. Procrastination is learned in the family milieu, but not directly. It is one response to an authoritarian parenting style. Having a harsh, controlling father keeps children from developing the ability to regulate themselves, from internalizing their own intentions and then learning to act on them. Procrastination can even be a form of rebellion, one of the few forms available under such circumstances.
  5. Procrastination predicts higher levels of consumption of alcohol among those people who drink. Procrastinators drink more than they intend to—a manifestation of generalized problems in self-regulation. That is over and above the effect of avoidant coping styles that underlie procrastination and lead to disengagement via substance abuse.
  6. Procrastinators tell lies to themselves. Such as, "I'll feel more like doing this tomorrow." Or "I work best under pressure." But in fact they do not get the urge the next day or work best under pressure. In addition, they protect their sense of self by saying "this isn't important." Another big lie procrastinators indulge is that time pressure makes them more creative. Unfortunately they do not turn out to be more creative; they only feel that way. They squander their resources.
  7. Procrastinators actively look for distractions, particularly ones that don't take a lot of commitment on their part. Checking e-mail is almost perfect for this purpose. They distract themselves as a way of regulating their emotions such as fear of failure.
  8. There's more than one flavor of procrastination. People procrastinate for different reasons. Dr. Ferrari identifies three basic types of procrastinators:
  • arousal types, or thrill-seekers, who wait to the last minute for the euphoric rush.
  • avoiders, who may be avoiding fear of failure or even fear of success, but in either case are very concerned with what others think of them; they would rather have others think they lack effort than ability.
  • decisional procrastinators, who cannot make a decision. Not making a decision absolves procrastinators of responsibility for the outcome of events.
  1. There are big costs to procrastination. Health is one. Just over the course of a single academic term, procrastinating college students had such evidence of compromised immune systems as more colds and flu, more gastrointestinal problems. And they had insomnia. In addition, procrastination has a high cost to others as well as oneself; it shifts the burden of responsibilities onto others, who become resentful. Procrastination destroys teamwork in the workplace and private relationships.
  2. Procrastinators can change their behavior—but doing so consumes a lot of psychic energy. And it doesn't necessarily mean one feels transformed internally. It can be done with highly structured cognitive behavioral therapy.

This is a good time to bring some science into our discussion. Behavioral psychology research has revealed a phenomenon called “time inconsistency,” which helps explain why procrastination seems to pull us in despite our good intentions. Time inconsistency refers to the tendency of the human brain to value immediate rewards more highly than future rewards.

The best way to understand this is by imagining that you have two selves: your Present Self and your Future Self. When you set goals for yourself — like losing weight or writing a book or learning a language — you are actually making plans for your Future Self. You are envisioning what you want your life to be like in the future. Researchers have found that when you think about your Future Self, it is quite easy for your brain to see the value in taking actions with long-term benefits. The Future Self values long-term rewards.

However, while the Future Self can set goals, only the Present Self can take action. When the time comes to make a decision, you are no longer making a choice for your Future Self. Now you are in the present moment, and your brain is thinking about the Present Self. Researchers have discovered that the Present Self really likes instant gratification, not long-term payoff.

So, the Present Self and the Future Self are often at odds with one another. The Future Self wants to be trim and fit, but the Present Self wants a donut. Sure, everyone knows you should eat healthy today to avoid being overweight in 10 years. But consequences like an increased risk for diabetes or heart failure are years away.

As in this video where present Homer talks to future Homer: https://youtu.be/jQvvmT3ab80

Reasons for Our Procrastination Habits

For every action there is a cause — a trigger of sorts that instantly brings forth decisions and behaviors that lead to daily and lifelong consequences that many of us accept without question.

Fear Driven Procrastination

  • Fear of Success
  • Fear of Failure
  • Fear of Conflict
  • Fear of Judgment
  • Fear of the Unknown

Action Driven Procrastination

  • Seeking Perfectionism and Micromanaging
  • Over Planning
  • Overworking

Habit Driven Procrastination

  • The Impossible Expectations
  • Guilt Driven Self-Talk and Criticism
  • Low Self-Esteem

Feeling Driven Procrastination

  • Feelings of Overwhelm
  • Feelings of Inadequacy
  • Feelings of Frustration
  • Feelings of Boredom

Procrastination Triggered through “Lack”

  • Lack of Focus
  • Lack of Confidence
  • Lack of Adequate Resources
  • Lack of Purpose and Direction

Unfulfilled Life Experiences and Circumstances

When we are unfulfilled with certain aspects of our lives, this can naturally lead to uncharacteristic self-sabotaging behaviors that lead us down the procrastination spiral.

Childhood Programming

Finally, procrastination can also evolve through a set of interlinking childhood experiences that we naturally accepted into our psyche at an age and time when we knew no better. This very much involves unconscious experiences that we struggle with on a constant basis throughout our lives.

5 ways to stop procrastinating by Timothy Pychyl:

1) Time travel: How to counteract the irrationality of human nature.

As Piers Steel makes clear in temporal motivation theory and Dan Gilbert shows in his work on affective forecasting, we are not merely irrational but predictably so. We discount future rewards as less important than a task at hand, particularly if it's a more pleasant activity, and we really aren't very good at predicting how we'll feel in the future.

"Time travel" can help here. That is, we need to use concrete mental images of the future more often and more accurately, to represent the future as though it were happening in the present. For example, a person who is procrastinating on saving for retirement might imagine as vividly as possible living on his or her potential retirement savings. To make a future image like this more concrete and accurate, it may be important to set out some numbers for a budget and take into account the reality of the need for and increasing expense of health care in old age. Planning shouldn't be an abstract notion of "doing it tomorrow." Think about the task in the real context of the day, and think carefully about how these tasks make you feel. This strategy will help you prepare for tip #2.

2) Don't give in to feeling good: Short-term gain, long-term pain.

When self-regulation fails, it's often because short-term emotional repair takes precedence over our long-term goals. For example, a task at hand makes us feel anxious or overwhelmed, so we "give in to feel good," seeking immediate emotional relief, and we walk away, leaving the task for tomorrow.

Here's where emotional intelligence is so important to procrastinating less. Learn to recognize that we can have negative emotions without acting on them. Stay put for a minute—don't walk away. Don't give in to "I'll feel more like it tomorrow." Acknowledge the negative emotions, but get started anyway. Progress on a goal provides the motivation for another step forward. Just get started; the negative emotions will pass.

3) Reduce uncertainty and distractions.

Planning is one thing; action is another. In fact, what can make a task aversive to us when we're simply making an intention or planning is how meaningful a goal is. The less meaningful the goal, the less likely we'll want to do the task. However, when it's time to act, aversive tasks—those we're most likely to procrastinate on—are those for which we're uncertain how to proceed. We're most likely to procrastinate on tasks that lack structure.

This means that in addition to making your task concrete (see tip #1), it's important to reduce the uncertainty about how to proceed—and, when it's time to act, to reduce available distractions as well. Shut off your e-mail, isolate yourself as much as you can, and make sure the environment around you is working to strengthen your willpower and focus, not to undermine your efforts. Speaking of willpower…

4) Willpower: How to make the most of the willpower muscle.

A great deal of recent research clearly indicates that willpower is like a muscle. You can exhaust it more quickly than you might imagine and, when you do, you lose your ability to self-regulate your behavior. One immediate method to strengthen your resolve in order to keep you on task is to remind yourself of your values. This process of self-affirmation bolsters our flagging reserves of willpower.

5) Another self-regulatory boost can come from mindfulness meditation. Attention is the first step in self-regulation, so learning to keep focused attention will help you procrastinate less by strengthening self-regulation.

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This blog is only for informational and educational purposes and should not be considered therapy or any form of treatment. We are not able to respond to specific questions or comments about personal situations, appropriate diagnosis or treatment, or otherwise provide any clinical opinions. If you think you need immediate assistance, call your local doctor/psychologist or psychiatrist or the SADAG Mental health Line on 011 234 4837. If necessary, please phone the Suicide Crisis Line on 0800 567 567 or sms 31393.